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With Drury and Gomez, Rangers have legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations @NHL

NEW YORK - Chris Drury peeled off his Rangers jersey across the room from where Jaromir Jagr tied his black skates with bright yellow laces.

On the eve of the season opener, the new linemates spoke optimistically about building a winner together in New York.

In the same dressing room four months ago, a despondent Jagr tried to put on a brave face after Drury and the Buffalo Sabres crushed the Rangers' championship hopes in the second round of the playoffs.

The Stanley Cup was merely a hopeful proposition for Jagr and the Rangers, but with Drury and fellow centre Scott Gomez now in the mix, suddenly such talk doesn't seem like a reach.

"Is it a benefit for us in the playoffs? I think so," Jagr said Wednesday. "But first of all we've got to get there."

When the puck drops Thursday at Madison Square Garden, New York will face the Florida Panthers and begin its most promising season since the mid-1990s when Mark Messier, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter starred.

The Rangers put a serious scare into the Presidents' Trophy-winning Sabres during last season's Eastern Conference semifinals, rallying from a 2-0 series hole and holding a one-goal lead in the closing seconds of Game 5 in Buffalo.

With the puck loose and the Rangers trying to hold on, Drury let go a quick shot from the right of goalie Henrik Lundqvist. As he has so many times before, Drury found the back of the net. New York was less than eight seconds away from a 3-2 series lead, but they dropped that one and were eliminated two days later at home.

Needing a true centre to play on a second line with returning all-star forward Brendan Shanahan, the Rangers targeted Drury - already a Stanley Cup champion with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001. New York made a big splash by signing free agents Drury and Gomez, a longtime nemesis from division rival New Jersey.

Now centre is an area in which the Rangers can feel good about entering the next phase of the maturation process. New York returned to the playoffs two seasons ago, after failing to qualify since 1997.

Last spring the Rangers took the next step and advanced to the second round for the first time in a decade, sweeping Atlanta and setting up a matchup with the Sabres. They didn't beat Drury, but were happy to bring him on board.

Maybe it wasn't such a hard sell to lure the Connecticut kid who grew up rooting for the Blueshirts.

"I don't bring it up and I don't think any of them want to bring it up," Drury said of last season's playoffs. "As athletes you're kind of just trained to put last year where it should be and move on.

"I'm sure no one in here day to day is thinking about me as a Sabre anymore or the year before with Scotty as a Devil knocking the Rangers out. They've welcomed me and Scotty with open arms."

Just hours into the free-agent shopping spree July 1, the Rangers spent US$86.75 million to sign the pair of elite scorers.

Gomez is under contract for seven years, while Drury is in the fold for five. Combined they add 50 goals and 79 assists, which offsets the 42 goals and 82 points lost by Michael Nylander's departure to Washington and the trade of Matt Cullen back to Carolina.

Drury set career highs with 37 goals and 69 points, including 17 power-play goals and nine winners. Gomez was a two-time Cup champion with the Devils.

Jagr is essentially healthy this year as opposed to last season when he was coming off major shoulder surgery, forced by an injury sustained when he threw an ill-advised punch at Gomez during the Devils' playoff sweep of the Rangers in 2006.

He was slowed a bit during the pre-season by a sore hip, but knocked on the wooden bench at his stall as he proclaimed himself healthy.

"I feel better. I survived last year," Jagr said. "There is a huge advantage for me. I can play different ways."

Originally, Rangers coach Tom Renney had Gomez on Jagr's line, but when they didn't click in limited time together, Drury stepped into the role. It is safe to assume many combinations and line shuffling will occur during the season.

"Right now, we're talking about probably top five greatest hockey players ever to play," Gomez said of Jagr. "He's that good.

"The good thing ... is we've got the options, you've got guys you can plug in here and there. So whatever it takes to win."

The biggest constant in the Rangers' lineup will again be goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who followed up his 30-win rookie season with a 37-win campaign. He played in 70 of 82 games and came through with a stellar 2.34 goals-against average, good enough to be a Vezina Trophy finalist.

Lundqvist is only 25 and is fully prepared for another heavy workload.

"It seems like we've improved," he said. "I think our goal is a little bit higher, more realistic."

Although the Rangers have been to the playoffs in consecutive years, they would like to get off to a better start than last season so they aren't fighting for points at the end to qualify.

They sputtered through an 18-17-4 start, capped by a seven-game losing streak in December, before riding a 17-5-5 surge following the arrival of Sean Avery from Los Angeles to the sixth seed in East.

"The points you get early in the year are real good to you at certain times of the year when you've got those injury things or you're in those dog days of January and February," Renney said. "The bottom line is we need to play every game with a certain amount of desperation."

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